After several months of relentlessly negative coverage by news channels like Republic and Times Now regarding the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and alleged drug use, ‘Bollywood’ finally struck back on 12 October.
A civil suit alleging defamation, violation of the right to privacy, prejudicing of the right to fair trial and violations of the Programme Code was filed in the Delhi High Court by major Bollywood figures against Republic TV, Arnab Goswami and Pradeep Bhandari (of Republic), Times Now, Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar (of Times Now), unknown persons (sharing videos and defamatory content online) as well as social media and streaming platforms.
They allege that “the Defendants have launched a witch-hunt and smear campaign against persons working in Bollywood in general and against specific members of the said industry by name.”
But how can an amorphous entity like Bollywood file a suit?
How are Republic and Times Now supposed to have defamed them?
And what exactly are they asking the court to do about this?
The full details of the suit have now been accessed by The Quint – here’s everything you need to know to understand what’s being termed as #BollywoodFightsBack.
Who Has Filed This Civil Suit?
The first four plaintiffs (ie, people who have filed a civil suit) in the case are four industry bodies:
Film & Television Producers Guild of India
Cine & TV Artistes’ Association (members of which include Deepika Padukone, Rhea Chakraborty and Farhan Akhtar)
Indian Film & TV Producers Council
These companies/associations/trade unions represent people from across the spectrum of stakeholders in Bollywood, from producers to actors, directors to scriptwriters, and singers to technicians. All four are authorised to approach courts in the event the individual rights of their members are being violated.
The 34 producers include some of the most famous names in Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment, Akshay Kumar’s Cape of Good Home Films, Salman Khan Films, Aamir Khan Productions, Ajay Devgn Films, Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, Zoya Akhtar’s Tiger Baby and Farhan Akhtar's Excel Entertainment. You can read the full list here.
How Are They Suing on Behalf of 'Bollywood'?
The various shows by Republic and Times Now, and the clips being circulated on the internet include allegations against several individuals like Rhea Chakraborty, Deepika Padukone, etc and the Bollywood industry as a whole.
So, what gives the plaintiffs in this case the ability to sue for defamation against Bollywood as an industry?
The suit explains that “The Hindi film industry based in Mumbai known as 'Bollywood' constitutes a cogent and identifiable class by itself comprising a finite and definite set of individuals who can be identified by virtue of their professional association with the Bollywood industry ... who are dependent on the industry for their livelihood and who are known in their individual circles by their association with the said industry.”
Bollywood is argued to be a unique industry because it is only an industry because of its relationship with its audience: Their goodwill, appreciation and acceptance. The unique name and identity of ‘Bollywood’ separate it from other Indian and foreign film industries, and those who work within it are clearly identified as being a part of Bollywood, whether in India or abroad.
As a result, “a smear campaign lowering the reputation of Bollywood as a collective affects each one of the persons associated with Bollywood individually.” The effect of this smear campaign by the TV channels and journalists in question would in any case severely impact their livelihood – with opportunities limited because of the ongoing pandemic, the effects are even greater.
However, the suit isn’t just about the economic consequences of reputations being damaged. There have also been serious invasions of these persons’ rights to privacy, and their lives and safety are also being jeopardised by the “hatred and anger that is being provoked by the Defendants against them in the general public.”
ISSUE 1: Defamation
According to the suit, while there has always been heavy coverage of Bollywood over the years, “the present smear-campaign and its aftermath is unprecedented in its reach, scale and vitriol.” It is argued that even though the standard of sensitivity is different for celebrities, no reasonable person can withstand the constant harassment and abuse that these news channels and their journalists have indulged in against Bollywood as a whole, and the hate generated in the public gaze as a result.
The plaintiffs have provided copies of recordings and transcripts of programmes by the defendants which they believe show that the content is:
"“speculative, irresponsible, derogatory, false and even actively malicious, and aimed primarily at damaging the reputation of Bollywood as a whole and [the plaintiffs’ and their members] in particular.”"
They note that not only have Arnab, Bhandari, Navika and Shivshankar (and their channels) made statements without any effort to ascertain the truth, or use responsible language, but that they have also made no attempt to temper the language of their other guests on their TV debates when making comments about the industry.
The content related to drug consumption is specifically raised as a major issue of defamation in the suit as this makes “being associated with Bollywood as synonymous with drug addiction and other crimes in the public imagination, causing irreparable damage to the reputation enjoyed by persons associated with the industry, and among their families, friends, neighbours, associates and the general public, and making them subject to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.”
Some of the comments flagged in the suit about this include references to:
“cocaine and LSD drenched Bollywood” ; “your consumption is the reason that Pakistan is carrying out narco terrorism operations enabling asymmetric warfare on our country” and “Cleanup Bollywood, shame the Bollywood druggies” (Arnab Goswami on 24 September);
"the open secret in Bollywood of money that comes from the underworld to finance movies” (Rahul Shivshankar on 23 September);
"when Rhea was arrested Shreya and Saira, all this Farhaan Akhtar lobby started saying blaze it up for Rhea ... which means I will consume drugs to show my solidarity with drug peddler drug consumer Rhea.” (Arnab Goswami (17 September); and
The underbelly of Bollywood’s dark secrets a world of drugs, narcotics, and skin crawling crime have started come to light ... This is the dirtiest industry in the country.” (Arnab Goswami, 2 August).
These statements are argued to satisfy all the ingredients of the tort of defamation: (a) publication of statements about the plaintiffs and their members to third persons; (b) which exposes to a damage to their reputation, causing them to be shunned; and (c) has a tendency to cause them harm, ie injury to their business or profession.
Reputation & Goodwill
Interestingly, when setting out the background for Bollywood’s reputation and goodwill, the suit notes how not only is it a major source of revenue and employment, but that the central and state governments have also long acknowledged this, using Bollywood stars to promote initiatives.
"“The present Prime Minister has made a personal and sustained effort to reach out to the film industry including organising events in Delhi and Mumbai where he has invited film personalities and bodies and publicly stated the importance of the industry’s contribution, particularly its immense soft power that is recognized globally.”" -
This is then contrasted with what they contend is a deliberate attempt to injure the livelihoods and goodwill of figures in the industry, including appeals by Arnab Goswami to boycott “druggies of Bollywood” like Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.
ISSUE 2: Infringement of Privacy
The suit also notes how private aspects of the lives of Bollywood personalities are “begin dragged into the public domain and their private communications including WhatsApp conversations are being illegally accessed and published in the public domain by the Defendants without authorization.”
In addition to the harassment and intimidation of Bollywood celebrities wherever they go, and construing their silence as guilt, the suit points out how pictures of women actors from films and photoshoots “are deliberately shown out of context in a manner as to cast aspersion on their character.”
The coverage of Deepika Padukone by Times Now is emphasised in the list of illustrative examples of this, including the display and discussion of private messages, as is Arnab Goswami’s needling of Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan’s on their silence.
ISSUE 3: Impact on Fair Trial
The suit notes that several people connected with Bollywood who are members of some of the plaintiff 1-4 organisations are being asked to be part of the CBI investigation into Sushant Singh Rajput’s death as well as the NCB’s investigations, with some like Rhea Chakraborty also being accused of crimes. The suit argues that:
"“As such, the Defendants by conducting media trials where news anchors on their TV channels, and others on online platforms take on the role of investigator, prosecutor and judge and condemn persons, including persons who have not even been asked by the agencies to join the investigation as guilty, are prejudicing fair trials in these cases.” "
It is noted that several well-known personalities have had baseless criminal cases foisted on them by viewers of these shows that they are guilty of a Bollywood conspiracy to keep out outsiders like Sushant Singh Rajput and promote nepotism, which is what drove him to suicide.
The drugs cases are once again a key issue here, with the shows on Times Now speculating which actors could be investigated and arrested cited specifically as examples.
This behaviour of the TV channels conducting parallel investigations and condemning Bollywood personalities as guilty based on what they term evidence is argued to be dangerous, with the plaintiffs noting there have even been instances where the claims have been found to be blatantly false or denied by the investigating agencies. An example of this is Times Now’s statement that Salman Khan had a stake in the KWAN group of companies (being investigated by NCB) on 22 September, which they had to then retract and apologise for.
ISSUE 4: Violation of Programme Code
All TV channels including Republic and Times Now are governed by the ‘Programme Code’ specified in Rule 6 of the Cable Television Network Rules 1994. The suit alleges that the coverage by these channels over the last four months violates prohibitions against the following kinds of programmges under the Code:
Which offend against good taste or decency.
Which contain anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths.
Which contain anything amounting to contempt of court.
Which malign or slander an individual or group.
Which denigrate women.
The suit notes that Arnab Goswami in particular has previous when it comes to this, noting News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) orders against him for his coverage of certain incidents at Times Now, the defamation suit by Justice PB Sawant against him at Times Now (for which the retired judge won Rs 100 crore in damages) and his coverage of the Sunanda Pushkar case at Republic, which recently saw the Delhi High Court note on 10 September that he had failed to comply with its orders for careful coverage of matters being investigated/pending trial.
Is the Suit Asking for a Media Gag? What Do the Plaintiffs Want?
The plaintiffs specifically note that they are not asking for a blanket gag order on reporting about the Sushant Singh Rajput case or the NCB’s drug investigations. Instead they are asking for mandatory and permanent injunctions:
Restraining the defendants from making and publishing irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory remarks against persons associated with Bollywood in general or the particular plaintiffs.
Restraining defendants from conducting media trial of persons associated with Bollywood in connection with cases relating to death of Sushant Singh Rajput and the NCB FIRs.
Restraining the defendants from interfering with the right to privacy of persons associated with Bollywood and the plaintiffs.
Directing the defendants to abide by provisions of Programme Code under Cable Television Network Rules 1994 .
Directing all defamatory content to be taken down by the channels, and for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google to remove/block/restrict/disable access to any of this content available online on their platforms.
As the consequences of the broadcast of these shows is continuing, the plaintiffs have also asked for these measures to be undertaken on an interim basis, as the plaintiffs have a prima facie case and will face irreparable injury or loss if this isn’t granted.
They have also argued against possible objections raised by Republic or Times Now against these measures on the basis of public interest, or press freedom, noting that:
"“Even a bare perusal of the publications, videos, debates and the tweets, etc reflects that these have been unduly sensationalized, apart from discussing matters which are sub-judice and are pending investigation. Therefore, the Defendants cannot in the name of so called public interest or journalism, exaggerate and overtly dramatize false and baseless statements, which reek of malafides.”" - From the suit
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